Rodney Hicks is a 43-year-old Broadway veteran but it would be easy to mistake him for a master yogi. He has a fitness worthy of an athletic professional, creating an appearance that defies age, and a public presentation that exudes a level of peace and knowledge that comes from decades of philosophical study.
In conversation with the Philadelphia-raised Hicks, he described that this tranquility was hard earned (and learned) from a life marked by trauma and loss. He shared how he transformed these experiences into art and a deeper sense of humanity. His work on stage includes his Broadway debut in the seminal musical Rent, a show that was marked by the sudden loss of playwright and composer, Jonathan Larson, the powerful but short-lived The Scottsboro Boys, the classic Jesus Christ Superstar, and most recently, the transformative piece Come From Away. Hicks recently announced that he was leaving this most recent show due to being diagnosed with the neurological disorder Spasmodic Dysphonia, which interferes with his ability to sing professionally. He has handled this medical problem with his usual goodwill, turning a potential obstacle into a new path of writing (his new play is NC-17). His thoughtful responses delineate a man whose childhood was marred by trauma but who found healing in his art, gracefully illustrating how people can move beyond hurt.
When did you realize that you wanted to be on stage? Can you talk about your path to making theater a career?
It was early on for me at the age of 7. Like many, my path to a theater career came out of my mind’s need to rebuild from early childhood trauma. Thankfully, Art and learned awareness have always found a way to magically change my life for the good. No matter what my 43 years have brought me in both sadness and celebration, art and everything and everyone who has to do with art-making, and appreciators of art, have always been there for me guiding and leading me to a more desired and healing path be it onstage, behind the scenes, or enjoying life here at home in the Pacific Northwest with my husband and our two dogs.
What is the relationship like for you between the actors on stage and the audience? How does the audience response impact your performance?
I love this question! It is such a very special relationship. One that, I believe, completes any cast, and moreover it is the final character that helps shape your play or musical and all of the characters who inhabit that space. The audience truly has the last say. As an actor, you always think you don’t want the audience to “affect” your performance, meaning, if you don’t get the laughs you got the night before or that sniffle that always comes just at the same time every night or matinee performance; when none of that comes, the same audience you were praising in your mind when they were laughing and there with you, you’ve now become too self-aware and over analyze and criticize them for listening in a way you didn’t plan, thus taking you out of the moment. Once you get over that hill of needing an audience to validate your work and dig into the real reason of why you chose to be an artist then you, the artist and the character become one and share to an enraptured audience, the final character of the play.
Was being in such an intense show about death, illness and community [Rent] a help or hindrance to your healing from the sudden loss [of playwright and composer] Jonathan Larson?
My Rent experience will stay close to my heart forever. Jonathan’s passing was devastating. It was definitely my second bout with trauma for sure. At 21, when he passed, and only having been to one other funeral in my life at the time, I didn’t know where to place any of my feelings. I grew up not knowing about the extraordinary benefits therapy can provide. Grieving for our friend who passed and continuing on his legacy was a lot for any of us to take let alone a naïve, just-turned 22 year old who was making his Broadway debut. But through that great tragedy came the beauty and joy of life-time friendships, and not just among those of us who were fortunate to be in the Original Cast, but a connection to people who have done Rent from their basement to Broadway. The connection that it has made with people for all of these years has been the blessing that helps the missing. Jonathan cast me in my second New York show, Blocks, in February of 1995, where I met [Rent original cast members] Anthony Rapp and Yassmin Alers. Great memories of an extraordinary artist and friend.
What has it meant to you to be part of Come From Away in terms of your own healing from 9/11?
A tragedy will always be there but the village of togetherness it takes to go through and come out of tragedy is for me, what Come From Away does as a balm to transcend 9/11 and bring us to the healing we need again today. It has meant and will always mean a great deal to me in my life.
Both Rent and Come From Away show the role that community plays in surviving loss and trauma. What role has community played in your professional life?
Resiliency, foundation, and rebuild. Community teaches you that, every community everywhere. The beauty is visiting other communities of artists and learning from them.
As a clinical psychologist, self-care is the most important part of my job. As a performer, what role does self-care play?
I learned self-care is the most crucial part of your journey and one that greatly differs from one artist to the next and what you do is wholly individual. What works for one is simply not the same for another. I applaud everyone of us who have somehow figured out how to love ourselves wholly, truly and with loving kindness and have taken the time to learn how to heal and lead happy and productive professional and personal lives with awareness. One of the things I did each night after a performance [of Come From Away] and listening to people speak of their loss, and now joy from seeing our story, I would go home and take a hot bath with Pink Himalayan bath salt. Liz Caplan [renowned vocal coach] shared with me that information and she was absolutely right, it is an excellent stress reliever.
Do you think being able to access your emotions in your work as an actor has an impact on your ability to access emotions in your personal life?
I am an individual with a very high emotional IQ, so meditation, hiking, reading, writing, directing and acting are a great way for me to balance my emotions.
I know you recently chose to leave Come From Away due to being diagnosed with Spasmodic Dysphonia. You have been so positive about it in the press and on social media. How have you been able to approach this as an opportunity instead of as a loss?
Thank you, I appreciate you mentioning that. I guess my approach really now is to not have an approach at all and to simply give it all over to the Universe. To continue to have the opportunity to create and collaborate on making great art that moves, questions and shakes people to laugh, cry, feel and discuss. Creating and loving every second of making art in the theatre. If I can continue to do that in this new beginning then I am beyond happy.
Tell me about the new show you have written, NC-17?
I‘m really excited about NC-17 and the journey its taken. I really love this play and the message it has to say about young subUrban life now in today’s America, of persevering and standing when everything in you wants to fall but you will do all that you can to stand. It’s about the great resilience that lies within.
Hicks was as graceful in conversation as he is acting on the stage. I hope that readers will find inspiration in his journey from hurt childhood to peaceful artist.
To follow his work, including his new role as playwright, go to http://rodneyhicks.net/.
To find out more about Spasmodic Dysphonia, visit the National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association.
To find out more about trauma, treatment and healing, please visit the National Institute of Mental Health.